Mixed metaphors

I’ve weighed in a number of times on various style crimes in the English language, starting with my rant on this grammar felony. Now Abhishek, India’s up-and-coming podcaster, tells me that he’d like more on style and language on this blog. Well, Abhishek, this one’s for you.

We’re in the middle of a financial meltdown, you may have noticed. Well, meltdown is a metaphor, from the nuclear industry. It’s fine to use metaphors from time to time. But let’s have a look at two articles published in the last hour by esteemed organizations, the New York Times and the Associated Press, about today’s market drop (another metaphor).

First, the two opening paragraphs of the NYT article:

Stocks fell by nearly 9 percent on Monday — the worst single-day drop in two decades — after the government’s bailout plan, touted by its supporters as a balm for the current market stress, failed to pass the House of Representatives, setting off a fresh wave of anxious selling.

In yet another day that has shaken the embattled canyons of Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials fell 777.68 points after it became clear that the legislation could not muster the support it needed to pass the House.

You notice I had some fun here by giving colors to each kind of metaphor. This was actually quite hard, because I ran out of colors of sufficient contrast. And that’s exactly my point.

In a passage of 85 words, I counted nine different kinds of metaphors, and I was being conservative. That things should be falling and dropping and otherwise succumbing to gravity when prices are going down seems obvious. That bailout nowadays refers more to Wall Street than to ships in distress I can accept. But….

… do we really need–simultaneously!–to imagine ointments (balm) for wounds, in this case stress, as well as waves, even though these do not go on to deluge anything, but rather shake things? In fact, it turns out that the things being shaken are canyons, which makes us wait for some quaking or perhaps erosion. Instead, we discover that the canyons are embattled (although it is not clear by whom). Just as I settle in for more siege and war images, I am asked to go back to falling, and then to take a side trip to mustering, with an image of congressmen standing at attention.

Ouch. My head is spinning. If the writer just wants me to know that this is all really bad, well, I get it. But do I need word torture as well?

Surely, this one slipped through the editors. The Associate Press, in its opening paragraph, probably does it better. Let’s see:

Wall Street’s worst fears came to pass Monday, when the government’s financial bailout plan failed in Congress and stocks plunged precipitouslyhurtling the Dow Jones industrials down nearly 780 points in their largest one-day point drop ever. Credit markets, whose turmoil helped feed the stock market’s angst, froze up further amid the growing belief that the country is headed into a spreading credit and economic crisis.

Oh well. So we have the bailout, then a whole lot of plunging and dropping with some hurtling (not the same thing) thrown in. Fine. But now we also get turmoil and then, instead of waves and canyons, feeding! Of angst, no less, which I recall means fear in German. This fear is apparently what caused a temperature drop because the markets froze. And this in September. While this was going on various things were either growing or spreading.

Pulitzers to all involved.


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7 thoughts on “Mixed metaphors

  1. Hey Andreas,

    What a pleasant surprise to read my name here! I know that you are not a fan of mixed metaphors from the long string of blog posts on style and language. The problem with these long sentences is that they are used so often by leading publications that to the us (the readers), they seem right. I mean we see them as benchmarks and standards. I had to wait for a long time before settling for The Economist as THE standard for good usage of English with some tongue in cheek ironic humor.

    But did The Economist get it wrong in the following case?

    I read this line from an article on The Economist –

    ‘The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and AIG’s federal takeover have triggered a wholesale flight to safety that could turn illiquid institutions insolvent.’

    In the above sentence, I wanted to know if there is a reason for using ‘have’ instead of ‘has.’ As I see it, in this line we are talking about ‘bankruptcy’ (singular) and not Lehman and (prural) AIG.

    Correct me if I am wrong and reward me if I am not!

  2. With due respect to you as an Economist employee, the Economist isn’t innocent of using cliched words or mixed metaphors – notwithstanding its expressed fidelity to George Orwell’s philosophy of English use (usage?).

    Since I’m becoming irritated by repeatedly encountering “meltdowns”, “plunges”, et al, I suggest some synonyms:

    meltdown – dissipation
    plunge – vaporize (ing)
    drop – dive
    balm – emollient
    wave – concatenation
    shaken – discombobulated

    This doesn’t cover all the words you typed in colour (color), but it’s a start.

  3. Interesting case: it’s plural because there are TWO subjects (the bankruptcy AND the takeover; Lehman and AIG are not subjects). So replace them with John and Jane: John and Jane have (not has) triggered a wholesale….
    However: You have selected a sentence with cunning aplomb, given this post’s topic: The writer (I know who it is, but won’t embarrass him here) has …. MIXED A METAPHOR!
    We have 1) a trigger (think gun) leading to 2) a flight (think escape). Strictly speaking we then have illiquidity and insolvency in the same sentence. Yuck.
    This always happens, by the way: When I wrote about cliches, I immediately found out about a few in our pages.
    As it should be. As it should be. 😉

  4. Oops, I was responding to Abhishek above, and just at that moment Christopher commented. Crossed in the ether.
    I’m as horrified by our own mixed metaphors as you, Christopher. In fact, you’ve motivated me to do a follow-on post USING ONLY SINS FOUND IN OUR PAGES.
    Let’s go on a campaign to save the metaphor. Down with the mixers!
    Regarding your helpful suggestion of stand-ins for some of our more egregious cliches: It’s interesting that all but one have Latin roots, whereas our cliches are Saxon. Hmm.

  5. You’ve had a tiring day and you get a phone call just before you are about to crash into your bed. It’s your editor. She tells you to get back on your laptop because Fed has just rejected the “bailout” plan of $700 bn. Now tell me Andreas, as a writer wouldn’t you think, ‘Aaaarggh. Let’s get this done within an hour and get some sleep because we have another long day ahead! I’ll worry about the tired metaphors some other day!”

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